Patter Songs

On Sundays, Peter Grant has music days. This past day he gave me an ear-worm*, thanks to a rendition of “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” a song I grew up singing because of the Irish Rovers. That, “Lilly the Pink,” “The Tattooed Lady,” and others were what my parents called “Patter songs,” based on the Vaudville tradition. (I actually had a great aunt who was a Vaudville singer and dancer, and who retired to an Actors’ Equity home. So I come by it honestly.)

Patter is a term for the fast paced humorous talk, a comedian or salesman’s patter. So a patter song was that, but set to music, often (always?) humorous and often a bit of a refreshing pause in the pace of the musical or variety performance. Gilbert and Sullivan put lots of them into their work. “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” (and Tom Lehrer’s ‘The Element Song” which uses the same tune,) “They Never Will be Missed,” “The Nightmare Song,” and others come to mind. Mozart’s Don Giovanni has a patter song, in the duet where Don Giovanni’s servant, Leoprello, is showing the little book with all of Giovanni’s amorous conquests.

“Do Your Ears Hang Low?” is one I learned as a patter song. Yes, it is a cleaned-up version of an older song, but I sang it along with, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor on the bedpost overnight?” and “The Billboard [I came upon a billboard]”. They were humorous bits among more serious choir and church camp stuff. Then there’s the Kingston Trio’s “The Tattooed Lady,” which for some reason I always link with “The Dog Sat in the Tucker Box (Five Miles from Gungadai)”

*Ohrwurm is the German, with the same meaning. It is from the same origin as the English term, although took on the musical sense before English picked the term up.

14 thoughts on “Patter Songs

  1. – click – Earworms activated. You HAD to mention the Billboard song, which leads to the Bubblegum song, several drinking or tavern songs (beyond Carmina Burana) and a host of others.

    The Patter songs take a lot more skill to write and perform, than music snobs may allow. Rhythm, words, and message all need to balance in this kind of folk (common people) music. Encouraging people to sing, instead of making their life go to a soundtrack pumped into their eardrums, is another story

  2. “Nine Miles” makes more sense when you hear the not-cleaned up version, which I have (was once lent a recording by a group calling themselves Blue Kangaroo and their work was… earthy, shall we say?)

  3. Patter songs can be enormous fun when they’re done right, but doing them right is a lot harder than it sounds. I seem to recall reading that there are several patter songs by various artists that have only been recorded once, and that in a studio. The singer won’t even attempt them live because they’re so difficult to get right. “I’ve Been Everywhere” is one example.

  4. So a patter song was that, but set to music, often (always?) humorous and often a bit of a refreshing pause in the pace of the musical or variety performance

    Instantly had Chewing Gum go through my head, so glad you listed it!

  5. Someday I want to learn the song about going to Morrow. I also like “I’m My Own Grandpa.”

    Every time I start to get mad about the failings of the LOTR and Hobbit live-action movies, I think of the epic. five zillion verse “Hinky Dinky Parley Voo. ” recording that Peter Jackson put onto the end credits of his WWI sound/colorization documentary.


    OTOH, it’s probably best that I went to see the documentary without my parents, because it wasn’t exactly family viewing time. But epic!

  6. I once heard a women’s barbershop quartet that had a number of patter songs in their repertoire. “The Auctioneer” (now there’s patter for you), and “The Elements” were two of them. They also had a humorous “The Barbershopper of Seville”, describing the trials of competition, set to various opera melodies. If patter is hard for one singer, imagine getting four of them to do it in harmony. And yes, live.

    • *howls in mixed amusement and sorrow*

      The Maryland ren fair has a set of “nuns”….I think they’re called “Hey Nunny Nunny”…their whole thing is patter.

      It was AWESOME. (Also a proud mommy moment, my gradeschool children were getting jokes that passed over the heads of adults in the audience, because theology matters.)

  7. My oldest son was once opining teenagedly away on how wonderful and new and modern rap was.

    I played some patter songs. Teen boggled. Nothing new under the sun. Ma! Stop quoting the Bible!

    Then he went off to introduce his friends to Gilbert and Sullivan . . .

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